9. BEYOND PROXIMATE CAUSE
We take responsibility for our actions and assume a duty to others that stretches beyond our capacity to anticipate consequences.
The Butterfly Duty: Mapping Our Way to Unity
The concept of “duty” has existed throughout the world and across recorded history. Duty means, “to have a moral or legal obligation or responsibility,” and is rooted in the concept of doing the right thing.
The word “duty” first appeared in the 13th century, coming from French and Latin words that referred to “what is owed, proper, and just.” At the turn of the 19th century, it became used as a legal term for obligations entered into through contracts. As industrialization spread, the courts created a general “duty to care” to protect consumers from the problems associated with manufactured products. Instead of duty being created by entering into a formal contract, a purchase was enough to create a duty to the consumer.
During the past 150 years, the legal “duty to care” expanded beyond consumers to apply more broadly as the formal way to enforce our unspoken social contract to take reasonable care to keep our actions from resulting in harm to others—to do the right thing. As globalization and technology have catapulted us into an increasingly complex web of human activity, we face new questions about what kind of duty of care we owe each other. The potential for our actions to have consequences that could be as far reaching as the whole world over, makes figuring out the right thing to do increasingly challenging.
Over this same period of time, our scientific understanding of cause and effect has grown exponentially. Big data now gives us the capacity to trace where we have been as well as the ripple effects of what we have done, and trending data can also help us map future probabilities of where we are going. Everyone now has the capacity to have a big picture view of causal pathways, even if they are remote in space and time or wildly indirect.
Importantly, we now understand that causation lives beyond linear reasoning and is best understood in the systems dynamics, including Chaos Theory with its popularized concept of the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect captures the concept of how a small change in one part of the system, like the flap of a butterfly’s wing, can have a huge and unpredictable impact somewhere else in the system, like the development of a hurricane.
The ideas captured by the Butterfly Effect can be the basis for articulating a new and corresponding way of understanding our duty to each other—the Butterfly Duty. The notion that a very small action taken by someone living on one side of the earth can have an enormous and unpredictable consequence half-way around the world—good, bad, or indifferent—is the key underpinning for developing a new approach to duty as global citizens. The Butterfly Duty creates a new obligation to be aware of our interdependent relationships and instructs us to avoid being the cause of others’ suffering and be the source of others’ healing, even in distant and unknown places.
Our ability to fulfill this duty requires that we make a proactive effort to be informed about the nature of cause and effect, and to consider the potential role we play in complex processes by understanding our own agency and capacity to impact others and the whole living system. We need to take advantage of the data feedback loop we have created to gather new levels of hindsight, foresight, and insight into the relationship between our actions and their consequences. This requires that we use our investigative capacity, imagination, empathy, and compassion to align our actions with the hunger of our own human hearts to do the right thing.
A more expansive sense of duty to each other cannot mean we are held responsible for every single thing that emanates from our living because that would be impossible and paralyzing. But we can have a far greater obligation to become aware of and understand the impact of our actions even when they are beyond our line of sight. In contrast to the image of the three wise monkeys, who cover their eyes, ears, and mouth as a symbol of shrinking from engagement and responsibility, the Butterfly Duty asks us to scan the horizon to see if we are needed, listen carefully for clues that our actions are implicated, speak out to subvert unethical wrongdoing, and instigate doing the right thing.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “compassion is a verb,” and contains the motivation to engage with the suffering in the world and try and heal it however one can. If we embrace a more expansive sense of duty that goes beyond our proximate line of sight to encompass the vast potential of our reach, we step closer toward the promise of a more unified world.
Butterfly Duty Practices:
Do the Math
During the course of your day, use the multiplier effect to imagine the aggregate impact of one small action you take. For example, if you are making a purchase that you know is a high-use consumer item, multiply that item by a million and picture the journey from source to creation to disposal—in aggregate. See if doing this exercise changes how you think about the things you purchase. Another exercise is to use the multiplier effect when you are doing a kind act. Imagine what it would be like if 3 billion people did a similarly kind act and see how that makes you feel. Practice thinking in aggregates as a way of considering the potential impact—good, bad, or neutral—that your actions might have on others.
Remember your imaginary friends when you were young, who could be invoked whenever you needed company? Try using the Buddhist Loving-Kindness Meditation practice to stretch your empathy muscle by imagining what it would be like if everyone in the world was someone you considered a friend. The meditation works by practicing extending good wishes of well-being first to ourselves, then out to those we care about, then to those we are neutral about, next to those we are challenged by, and ultimately to all beings. Regular loving-kindness practice can help us feel a deep sense of connection and well-being, and motivate us to be more compassionate to everyone around us.
Native cultures have a tradition of thinking about the next seven generations in important decision making to ensure that the children of the future are considered now, in the present. During your day, use your imagination to travel into the future and think about the children seven generations from now. Also, try travelling back in time to trace the values you inherited from your ancestors. Analyze whether they are still serving you now or not. If they are, think about drawing strength from your lineage and, if they are no longer serving, commit to making a change in how you are living.
Heal It Forward
The yogis say no action is ever wasted. The time spent healing yourself, your family, your community, and the planet has a healing effect that ripples out into the universe. As a compassion practice, reflect on something that is fractured or ailing in your own life or in your community, and commit to taking small steps toward repair over the next year. Take the time to journal about this process of tending to and healing yourself and others.
It takes time to learn where our material stuff comes from. As a practice put on your investigative hat and figure out where some of the things in your life originate. Research who makes them, how they are made, what they are made of, and what happens to them after you are done with them. Follow the trail from creation to disposal or recycle¬. If you don’t like what you discover, figure out what the alternatives are and become an advocate to change the process. If you are encouraged by what you find, spread the word.
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